Williams cannot forget Lions who changed New Zealand

12:30 PM BST

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The names of the 1971 British & Irish Lions forever run through the great Bryan Williams’ mind. He recites their starting XV for the first Test, without pausing. “I admire them all,” he says, eyes flickering through the men in red. “They were a great side.”

That group are still venerated here in New Zealand. For Warren Gatland, aged nine when the 1971 Lions came to town, they were a wake-up call; for the first time the young Gatland realised there was rugby life beyond this island in the Southern Hemisphere.

For New Zealand rugby, they were the tourists who prompted change. The Kiwis expected to dispatch the Lions, like they did in 1966. But as they watched the Four Nations from afar, there was this feeling that the ’71 crop were going to be different. They played with a pace and style never seen here; they moved the ball, backed up by a physical pack. It prompted change.

Williams was 20 at the time, having made his Test debut the previous year. But in just one season of rugby, he had gone from the youngster in the group to an old head as they lost in one brush-stroke a huge amount of knowledge and experience. They had to adapt, but time was not on their side.

“There would have been a bit of complacency in 1971,” Williams tells ESPN. “I was pretty conscious that after our tour to South Africa in 1970, most of the backs that carried the team through the 1960s had retired. I’m talking about Chris Laidlaw, Earle Kirton, Ian MacRae, Bill Davis, Malcolm Dick, Grahame Thorne — so we lost a huge amount of experience.

“Fred Allen had been the coach through the 1960s and he had an unbeaten run and then Ivan Vodanovich took us to South Africa. We were just inexperienced with an inexperienced backline. To come as close as we did… when you play for the All Blacks you don’t give up easy.”

The phrase “to come as close as we did” is alarming when put in a New Zealand rugby context. The All Blacks we know now, the one the world has come to recognise as being the team at the pinnacle of the sport, constantly reinvent themselves to move ahead of the chasing pack. But back in 1971 the Lions were the innovators.

Williams, right, chats to Lions coach Warren Gatland during the tourists’ official Maori welcome in Waitangi.┬áHannah Peters/Getty Images for TNZ

The first time New Zealand really took notice of the touring party was in the seventh game of the tour when the Lions tackled Wellington. “It was a wake-up call,” Williams says. “We watched the Four Nations as it was back then, so we knew Gareth Edwards, Barry John and co were great players. We were wary but you get led astray by the previous results like 1966 and 1959.

“But then the Lions played against Wellington. Wellington had a sound side but they got walloped 47-9, and when you see that happen and the style of play, you’d be silly if you didn’t try and adopt it.”

New Zealand tried their best to shift tactics to tackle the Lions; as they were being overpowered in the pack, they dropped to a three-man scrum, almost surrendering that area of the match. But the changes couldn’t come quick enough. The Lions would go on to win the four-match Test series 2-1.

As the victorious Lions went home, complete with a team where surnames were superfluous given the billing they had in New Zealand, the All Blacks had to change both on and off the field.

“They had a huge impact on New Zealand rugby, mainly because of the enterprising style of play, their counter-attacking which we hadn’t really experienced in this country before,” Williams says. “Once the Lions went home, all of New Zealand rugby embraced counter-attacking to good effect but it took time.

Williams, right, challenges Lions wing Gerald Davies during the fourth Test of the 1971 tour. Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“The 1972 tour to the UK, we were still forward orientated, I froze out on the wing for most of that tour which annoyed me at the time. It took us a while to embrace counter-attacking.

“We started to play more enterprising rugby and our discipline improved off the field a great deal. But our discipline in 1972 and 1973 wasn’t anything to write home about — I vowed that I’d never go on another tour like that again. We started to build some maturity and in 1974 we went to Ireland and our PR off the field was good and in 1978 our grand slam tour, our behaviour was exemplary.”

The Lions returned in 1977 and were beaten 3-1 in the series. “1971 was a great example of how a team operates and we looked at that. In 1977 we were on the way up, even though I was kicking in the first two Tests which didn’t go too well. In the second Test we lost 13-9 and I kicked three out of eight. But to win the series was more a relief than anything.”

The ’71 Lions remain the last group to win a Test series on New Zealand soil. It’s up to the class of 2017 to make their own dent in All Blacks history.

Williams will be a face in the crowd on Saturday at Eden Park waiting to see if the Lions can unlock the All Blacks’ defence and get set piece superiority. As he sits there watching, his mind will no doubt head back to his role in the 1971 tour and those names forever running through his head.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/19703901/all-blacks-great-bryan-williams-remembers-1971-lions-tour-helped-change-new-zealand-rugby
Williams cannot forget Lions who changed New Zealand
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